It is perhaps ironic in the extreme to take to the internet to extol the virtues of contemplation, and to do so while discussing a story that, by the time you read this, will be over a full day old (a near-eternity in the blogosphere), but President Obama’s allusions to the Emancipation Proclamation (or more accurately, the release of a months-old talk where he praises Lincoln’s move as a marriage of principle and pragmatism) in the contextual crucible of the debt-ceiling debate, makes me wish we could really spend some time learning, relearning, and discussing the Proclamation and Lincoln’s actions in the context of his time and the lessons they might hold for action in ours.
It would be as fun as it would be enlightening for me (and a lot of others, I’d hope) to have a back-and-forth about what President Lincoln and his Emancipation Proclamation did and didn’t do—for slaves in Union and Confederate states, for the war effort on both sides of America’s Civil War, and for the future of the (as opposed to “these”) United States—because there is room for argument. And, it would be great if we could first pursue the pure knowledge and understanding before having to turn it into an ironclad metaphor for our current president and his very current “crisis” (another point open to interpretation). But Obama “went there”—first in a March talk with a group of students, and this weekend with the release of tape of that talk and another video alluding to the same issue—and so the metaphor, like a battle, is joined.
Because my preamble ramble is already closer to the pre-internet-age chat than I had intended, let me shorthand a lot of my thinking on Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation and say that while I feel comfortable in raising an eyebrow about just how few slaves were freed on its first day, January 1, 1863, and also feel comfortable in asserting that Lincoln understood the shrewd politics of the Proclamation’s exact language, a day of looking at recent scholarship on these issues also has me believing that “Emancipation,” such as it was proclaimed, did much to help the Union’s war effort by adding a second “cause” (the eventual abolition of slavery in addition to the opposition to southern secession) to the fight, by painting a stark moral contrast between the warring parties to European powers that had abolished slavery themselves, but still had other reasons to aid the Confederacy (such as Great Britain), and, quite notably, by allowing northern blacks and freed southern slaves to enlist and fight, swelling the ranks for the Union side.
All of this allowed Lincoln to attain his stated primary goal—the preservation of the Union—but it also (along with some very critical acts of Congress) laid the groundwork for the degradation of slavery in Northern slave states, the outlawing of slavery in US territories, and soon after, the passage of the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery across all states. (It also helped blunt any thoughts of a challenge to Lincoln’s re-nomination from the abolitionist wing of the Republican Party in 1864, which is interesting even in today’s context, and an attractive grace note to my point here.)
With all of this (all of this) in mind, let us now examine President Obama’s words, as delivered to a politically mixed group of students:
[Obama] noted that President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation permitted slavery in border states loyal to the Union, in an attempt to hold the nation together.
“Here you’ve got a wartime president whose making a compromise around probably the greatest moral issue that the country ever faced because he understood that ‘right now, my job is to win the war and to maintain the union,’” Obama said.
“Can you imagine how the [liberal news outlet] Huffington Post would have reported on that? It would have been blistering. Think about it, ‘Lincoln sells out slaves.’”
He told the students: “The nature of our democracy and the nature of our politics is to marry principle to a political process that means you don’t get 100 percent of what you want.”
Again, setting aside just how accurate the analogy is with respect to what the Emancipation Proclamation did and/or was intended to do, and trying, too, to ignore the gratuitous hippy punching, I want to focus on the last paragraph with respect to the broader invocation of Lincoln’s pragmatism.
Obama seeks to praise Lincoln for his ability to attain his goals in light of and in spite of both factional opposition and structural impediment, and in so doing, the current president rather nakedly implies that he is doing the same. Obama essentially says: “Lincoln married his principles to process and achieved his goal, and now, so too, will I. Someday, many will appreciate what I am doing the way we now appreciate Abraham Lincoln.”
But here’s the rub: What principle? And what goal? Obama’s big lesson, he says, is “you don’t get 100 percent of what you want,” but what is it that Obama wants?
I don’t think he is concerned about the actual preservation of the Union. Aside from a marginal group of racists and paranoids—and the small handful of opportunist politicians that will claim some common cause even if they intend to do nothing as noteworthy as a Jefferson Davis—few are expecting another war between the states. Is the president then thinking that the fight against America’s current economic woes is the moral equivalent of the fight to preserve the Union? Could be, but then how have his actions moved us closer to that goal? What principle is he marrying to politics?
Deficit hawking will do nothing to create jobs or consumer demand, and laying things his party holds dear on the table (or whatever euphemism Obama is using this week for offering up benefit cuts to Social Security and Medicare) not only makes the personal economies of so many Americans that much more precarious, it does nothing—nothing—to affect the deficit, or, much more to the immediate point, the debt ceiling. This would not just be me saying this; this would be the vast majority of our nation’s economists. I would also wager big money that any of the president’s long trail of ex or soon to be ex economic advisors—from Austan Goolsbee to Jarred Bernstein to even (yes) Larry Summers—would agree: if your goal is to usher in a robust economic recovery, cutting trillions from public projects, social programs and so-called “entitlements” will be almost entirely counterproductive.
Is the “goal” compromise itself? Many, including myself, often feel this way. But what is that? How does that marry “principle” to “politics” when it defines them as exactly the same thing?
Which leaves me with two remaining possibilities—both unpleasant.
I am going to give short shrift to the sinister one—that Obama is a sort of “Manchurian Candidate” whose entire career was engineered for the goal of destroying the Rooseveltian welfare state and the Democratic Party that built and defended it. It might be true in practice, but the psychology and construction of this thesis requires more supposition than I am comfortable writing.
To me, it seems the more obvious answer is now the correct one—and maybe the sadder one, too: Obama’s goal, the principle and practice that the president is equating with the Emancipation Proclamation, is in fact his re-election. To Obama, the preservation of his presidency is the same as Lincoln’s preservation of the Union.
How else can we explain Obama’s “leadership” on economic issues, especially since the “grand compromise” of last December when he allowed the continuation of Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest of the wealthy? What other “principle” dictates that the president insist on moving further and further toward a camp of greedy, rich corporatists and their Washington proxies? What “goal” is achieved by taking away from the president’s own party the one sure-fire electoral winner, the contrast between the party that protects Social Security and Medicare, and the party that openly has suggested cutting them?
These questions are even more pointed, to my ear, if we are to believe (as some keep insisting) that the president does not intend to make these cuts or move as far right as he might make it seem, but is instead just posturing to throw his opposition off balance, to reveal them as the more intractable. It is a posture that does nothing for Democrats in Congress (or anywhere down ticket, really), but it does, in the eyes of Obama’s political team, anyway, project the president as more “independent” and more appealing to some dubious grouping of “independent voters.”
Imagine, then, Abraham Lincoln approaching the same problem. Lincoln was not above politics—as noted, the Emancipation Proclamation was a shrewd document politically, and during Lincoln’s senatorial and first presidential campaigns, he would address slavery in very different terms depending on his audience—but it was politics toward a goal bigger than himself, and it would eventually come to be politics married to a principle that, even though not as enlightened as our current approach to race, still became steadfast in its alliance with the abolition of slavery.
Would Lincoln feel that simply positioning himself for a second term, giving his re-election the best of all possible chances, was the same thing as preserving the union? That one is a stretch for me. And, even though Lincoln’s initial indication of the impending Emancipation Proclamation (in September 1862) was bad for some Republican members of the House (they lost seats in the 1862 midterms), with the principle of abolishing slavery in hand, the president’s party was given an issue to run on that served them well in many places for the next 100 years.
Can Barack Obama look at his moves in the current “battle” and expect a similar legacy? He can want it, but history will be the judge. It will be, should the republic survive or no, the stuff of future discussions and scholarship. It is for time to decide, not Beltway strategists, not “independent voters,” and certainly not the president, himself.
(A version of this post appears at Firedoglake.)